Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Empathy, Genocidaires and Gangbangers

I haven't written in weeks.  I haven't been in the best place.  I needed a break, not sure if it was from Rwanda or from life this year.  This year I've simply been "off".  So many variables, things back and forth, scheduled and rescheduled, taken off the schedule completely then put back on the schedule at the last minute.  Last year was fairly cut and dry, the Olympics were our main focus.  This year has been akin to sipping out of a fire hydrant.

I went home at the end of April hoping for a long rest.  I had been on and off sick for most of the beginning of the year, staph infection, broken blood vessel  in the eye, seriously bad case of influenza which ended with a trip to the Emergency Room in Switzerland.  Throughout most of the year I had also been off the bike.  I rode every week, but generally only once a week.  Travel, available time and sickness had kept the bike at arms length.  My first 10 days back in the US was spent in a plane....Las Vegas, DC, Kansas City, LA, Las Vegas, Phoenix, Silver City New Mexico, Las Vegas.  I was exhausted, mentally, physically and spiritually.  And then I got on my bike in the second week of May and started riding again.  A week or so later I remember waking up in Las Vegas and thinking this was the first time I felt 100% all year.  I felt rested, well and strong again in all areas of my life.  I spent the last two weeks home riding and eating and seeing friends.  It was good.

I came back to Rwanda for only a week and then onto Sardinia, Italy for a sponsor bicycle trip with Vittoria tires....that story will be for another blog.  Suffice it to say, it was heaven.

I felt like I had found my meaning again.  There had been so many distractions since late last year particularly with the fallout from the film.  But really, for me, once I got back on the bike, started riding with the riders again, testing riders, essentially doing what I love most, I felt calm, peace and a sense of this is exactly where I am supposed to be and what I am supposed to be doing.  I have ridden more in the last 8 weeks than the prior four months and mentally I felt the positive effects.

Until today....how quickly this place can unravel it for you.

I went out for a quick ride late this morning before the riders came in for my first training camp with them in months.  As I rode along with our new teacher from the US, Jody Nathan, I felt good about life, about the team, about how I live.  2.25 miles into our ride we crested a hill and just a few feet below the top of the hill was a dog laying in the middle of the right hand lane.  He was dead. He had been hit by a car....recently.  As Jody and I rode past I started to become emotional.  We pulled over on the side of the road and I called my girlfriend, the head vet for the mountain gorillas.  No answer.  I called back to the house to get the number of the other vet at the organization, his name and number pinned above my desk, no answer.  Cars, busses, and trucks came over the hill and quickly swerved to miss the dog but no one stopped.  I looked up after my last phone call to see three women standing across the street staring at us.  The stare....there it is...the stare that unnerves me, leaves me angry and leaves me hopeless for this country.  It is the most vacant stare you will see.  There is no soul behind these stares.  It is prevalent in Rwanda, especially in this part of Rwanda.  You look up and into their eyes and all you see is a giant void, a complete nothingness.  They just stare.  They stare because I am white, I am a novelty (yes, even after 4 years of riding the exact same road day in and day out).  It is a look of hopelessness and emptiness.  I will have nightmares about these stares.

I turned the bike around and rode back to the dog.  Jody said we should move him to the side.  I propped my bike up against the light pole and walked over to the dog...it had probably been within the past hour he had been hit.  He was so peaceful.  I grabbed his hind legs and Jody grabbed the front of him and we carried him off the road and laid him to rest on some grass near the shoulder.  There had been a shirt in the road next to him which I placed over his body.  I am not sure why I did this, it just seemed like he was sleeping.  My eyes welled up with tears.  I was sad for the dog and increasingly angry with the growing crowd.  The crowd which laughed and pointed at the two white girls pulling a dog out of harm's way.  One young man pointed at me and laughed.  Normally I would have had the thought, "if I could only punch my fist through your face, I would feel so much better".  Today I looked at him with fear, horror and disgust.  More than 100 people walked past that dog and did nothing...nothing. When we did something they laughed.

People wonder aloud with me at times how something like a genocide could have happened here 19 years ago.  Genocide happens in the absence of empathy.  Empathy according to Dictionary.com is "the intellectual identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another."  Basically putting yourself in someone else's shoes...or paws.  I do this every day when I become frustrated with a rider.  I also ask myself, "where are they coming from, what is their filter, how has the culture influenced their action."  This is empathy.  I am not perfect, sometimes I become angry when I shouldn't, but I always reassess every situation and look at it from another's perspective.  Today I saw people leave a dog in the street, walk past it without a glance and then laugh when someone helped.  There was no sign of empathy.

After we moved the dog we jumped back on our bikes and I rode off.  I left Jody behind, usually I circle around after each hill but today I just kept riding.  I tried to ride the feeling I had, the visual burned into my brain of the "stare", I tried to ride it out of me.  I could not.  There was no escaping the truth.  

How do people turn on each other, kill each other, kill neighbors and friends and even family?  This only happens if people are void of empathy.  I could never in a million years kill anyone.  My heart breaks when I see animals, people or children abused.  Today on Facebook I saw a friend of mine showing off her new diamond ring for her 25th wedding anniversary....I thought of all the people on this continent who die mining those diamonds.  I cannot wear a diamond because I know where they come from.  I know the people who die every day to feed their family by working in a mine.  I cannot turn a blind eye to what happens here.  

As I rode I thought about how Rwanda really is not all that different from the US in some aspects.  I recently read a book, "Tattoos on the Heart".  It was written by a man who has worked with LA gangs for over two decades.  Jody, our new teacher, took a sabbatical from her job as a high school teacher in LA to work in Rwanda.  The stories they both have about the young men and women born into poverty, lacking a bond from birth which establishes an empathetic core, are similar.  The young men and women who kill each other on the streets of any big city in America simply because they don't belong to the "right" gang is no different.  They kill because they have no empathy.  Bloods and crips or whatever the gang name of the day are no different than the Hutus and Tutsis of Rwanda.  They are the same people, they simply have no empathy for their neighbor, friend or family.

So I wonder....can you teach empathy?  If you're empathic you're less likely to pick up a gun or machete and use it.  Then can we teach these young people empathy?  If we could would the violence cease?  It almost seems too simple.  But what if we could..?

I know the lesson of empathy will be taught at every opportunity with this team.  I would like to think our riders are different, they have been exposed to different thinking, more education, they have empathetic role models.  I will not leave it to chance....my prayer is one of our riders would have stopped to move the dog off the road.  Only by example will things change both here and home.



1 comment:

  1. Poignant, sad, heartfelt. Tough to read and even tougher to understand that mentality. And yet, it exists - everywhere and all the time.

    I only know that you are right - it is by example and doing "good" that things change.

    Stay strong!

    Diane

    ReplyDelete